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“Dolby’s Rupees: Cream.”

* “The sage enters into every situation full of anxiety, and so is always successful.” – old Chinese Zen proverb

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Usually when I do these “Rupees” [1] segments I choose a song, or in my extra loquacious modes an album, and just babble about it per some modicum of de facto inspiration in my garbled mind, but as we all know Cream’s entire studio discography fits on two CD’s (or four vinyl albums, if you prefer).
And it’s generally held that Eric Clapton, whose “career with The Yardbirds and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers earned him a reputation as the premier blues guitarist in Britain” was the glue that held the group together. Get this, I zone out to Cream all through high school, mostly on cassette tapes in my car, we get down to college (class of ’06), all my friends dig the group, we catch a show on TV and FINALLY discover that Clapton wasn’t the lead singer. It was some dude by the name of “Jack Bruce,” who also played bass. Cream were a three-piece, you see, and though I wouldn’t say their mixes are ESPECIALLY opaque the way you’ll get obviously with bigger bands like Pearl Jam or Radiohead, they belted out some visceral, alpha-male blues with legendary sangfroid until their “Goodbye,” [2] even managing to incorporate harmonica on songs like the Grateful Dead-approved 12-bar blues “Four until Late.”
Taking a look at the whole album Fresh Cream, their 1966 debut, from which “Four until Late” spawns, you see that much of it is basically a beginner’s etude lesson in American delta blues covers: well what is Led Zeppelin I but the same? The few original songs, which pepper side A, are titans of Jack Bruce’s ephemeral songwriting muse (Clapton is not credited with any creative contribution up to this point), moving with the visceral power of punk rock concoctions like “N.S.U.,” but seamed by a delicate paper-like quality which almost presages the band’s untimely withdrawal from form. By Disraeli Gears, the band’s sophomore album and generally appointed creative zenith, Clapton is a partner in crime, the threesome huddled and braced against the rapacious and uncompromising celestial power that is woman (“Strange Brew”; “Sunshine of Your Love”). It’s hard to believe such a concentrated blow to the gristle of man’s frustrated ennui as this early-days thinkpiece blues rock could ever meet such early demolishment, but that’s just the way of the world sometimes. Ensuing LP project Wheels of Fire furnishes undoubtedly the group’s biggest hit, “White Room,” as well as some taut and evanescent pop gems like “Those Were the Days” and “Deserted Cities of the Heart” both of which would resurface of Live Cream II, but extended wank-fests like “Passing the Time” remind us just why a best-of CD by these guys can be such a trusted companion. [3] Goodbye, their final “album,” is obviously just a “joke” on the record label, like Prince changing his name to a symbol or Jane’s Addiction putting out Kettle Whistle, but it does feature along with “Badge” the purveyor of a trenchant Bruce bridge “Anyone for Tennis,” a “bonus track” which would go on to make it on the The Very Best of, go figure, and also offer one of the weirdest videos of all time not made by a band named Grizzly Bear.
There, I’ve just taken you through every studio album. I don’t need no stinking new paragraphs! But I am just scratching the surface here, because we’ve still the “Live Cream”’s (Live Cream, Live Cream II) to consider, as well as the gargantuan blues-rock orgy which is The Very Best of Cream, every high school stoner’s prized pocket stuffer when he wants to get into ‘shrooms, or is just suffering through a terrible winter. Cream is the rare band plagued not by mediocrity, not by creative immobility, and not by drugs, but by… the fact that they’re not a freakin’ band anymore, they broke up. They held true to the initial rumors, which were dispatched by Jimi Hendrix in stage banter on Live at Winterland with the Experience, a live album which features an instrumental cover of “Sunshine of Your Love.” Also, it’s impossible to overstate Cream’s songwriting influence on the democratic Experience and bassist Noel Redding, whose “She’s So Fine” made the cut for Axis: Bold as Love. Sure, the height of Cream’s visceral power can be sampled from Clapton’s evanescent guitar licks in “Spoonful” and “Sitting on Top of the World,” but the way that Cream functioned as a full band was that these tidbits of hubristic virtuosity were often undergirded by fine, fine songs — Jack Bruce pop tunes like “N.S.U.,” “Badge” and “Sweet Wine” in which he seems to foreshadow his unwillingness to ever do anything fake in life: “Who wants the worry / The hurry of city life? / Money nothing funny / Wasting the best of our lives.” Bruce sang with a sticktoitive male proxy, compensating for the fact that they were doing Delta Blues covers by just plain rocking — but enabling a phenomenon where Bruce can justify the use of a certain word by making it sound like another. Sure, maybe it’s just one of those things we don’t really understand, which, mind you, only makes it better.
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[1] “Rupees” is a measurement of currency in India.
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[2] Such is the name of their final studio album.
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[3] Unforgettably crashing the Very Best of Cream party, for that matter, is their epic cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” slowed down and even swampier.

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